Morgan v. Hennigan
Morgan v. Hennigan was a 1974 landmark court ruling that ordered the public schools of Boston to desegregate and reshaped the city’s educational and political landscape in the process.
The case had landed in front of Judge Wendell Arthur Garrity in 1972 after African-American parents had spent more than a decade attempting to compel the Boston Public Schools to integrate. In 1961, civil rights activist Ruth Batson repeatedly pressed the Boston School Committee to desegregate the city’s schools. Yet the Committee refused to acknowledge that racial segregation and discrimination plagued the schools Committee members were charged with overseeing. Over the next several years, New England chapter of the NAACP staged protests and boycotts to call attention to the city’s disparity of educational opportunity.
In 1965, the Kiernan Report, a study commissioned by the Massachusetts State Board of Education, confirmed that existing racial imbalances in Massachusetts public schools harmed students. The Boston School Committee dismissed the Kiernan Report’s findings, instead citing a study issued by Boston Public Schools Superintendent William Ohrenberger, which suggested that segregation did not impair students in any way. The state legislature, the Massachusetts General Court, passed the Racial Imbalance Act later in 1965, declaring that segregation in public schools was illegal in Massachusetts. The Boston School Committee, led by Louise Day Hicks, refused to comply with the law, ignoring the state’s orders to develop and implement a busing plan.
In 1972, parent Tallulah Morgan and fourteen other parents of black schoolchildren in Boston worked with the NAACP to file a lawsuit against the Boston School Committee’s president James Hennigan and other members for their failure to comply with the 1965 Racial Imbalance Act. On June 21, 1974, Judge Garrity of the U.S. District Court for the District of Massachusetts ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, finding that the School Committee had “knowingly carried out a systematic program of segregation affecting all of the city’s students, teachers, and school facilities.” The U.S Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court later upheld the ruling.
To remedy this wilful segregation, Garrity ruled that the city’s schools had to implement the busing plan developed by the Massachusetts’ State Board of Education. For the next thirteen years, Boston students were bused by court order to schools around the city in order to ensure some racial balance. White parents and students loudly protested the ruling, and these protests famously exploded into violence. Critics of the plan denounced Garrity, whose own children lived in Wellesley and were unaffected by the ruling.
Garrity oversaw the city’s desegregation busing system until 1983, when the Massachusetts Board of Education took over that responsibility. In 1985, Garrity issued a final ruling on Morgan v. Hennigan, gradually transferring control of desegregation busing to the Boston Schools Committee. The committee took final control over the system in 1988.
For the last quarter of the twentieth century and well into the twenty-first, Morgan v. Hennigan remained a contentious case in Boston. It affected the lives and educations of hundreds of thousands of students, influenced Boston politics, and helped shape Boston’s national reputation as a city divided by racial and socioeconomic tensions.
Formisano, Ronald P. Boston Against Busing: Race, Class, and Ethnicity in the 1960s and 1970s. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2004.
Masur, Louis P. The Soiling of Old Glory: The Story of a Photograph that Shocked America. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009.
Taylor, Steven J.L. Desegregation in Boston and Buffalo: The Influence of Local Leaders. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.
Northeastern University Archives
Boston Research Center